The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This is Washington’s homelessness as you’ve never seen it before

Five camera-toting D.C. residents took to the streets of Washington this month to meet the people who are always there but rarely seen. They’re passed on the way to work, or by the Metro, or in front of a Starbucks. They are the District’s approximately 7,500 homeless people, and they are so familiar around the seat of the nation’s government that they become fixtures instead of human.

Hi Uan Kang Haaga, 32, a photographer, collaborated with Heather Hill and Jaime Colman, two fellow graduates of Houghton College, in New York; Charmaine Runes, research assistant at the Urban Institute; and James Ellis, pastor at Peace Fellowship, to disperse across the city to tell the stories of the city’s homeless. For each of the 29 days of February, they are profiling a person they met, in the style of the popular site “Humans of New York,” and have published one story a day.

One homeless man said he’d just been waiting for someone to stop and say hello.

“As a person who lives in D.C., I met a lot of people experiencing homelessness, but never spoke to any for more than a few minutes. A casual hello, a no, I don’t have cash right now, sometimes an avoidance of eye contact,” Kang Haaga said. “One of our interviews started at a crosswalk where a man held up a sign asking for help. We said hello, and his whole body kind of exhaled. He said that he had been praying for a while for someone to just stop and say hi.”

Kanh Haaga has given permission to share several of those stories. The rest can be seen here.

Jerry, No. 18 — Union Station, NE — Written by Hi Uan Kang Haaga

I met Jerry outside of Union Station on a cold morning. He was asking passersby for change, but he didn’t seem used to having to ask people for help. “I’m from Miami, and I’m here looking for work. I like working nine to five — all I want to do is work. I’ve worked everywhere — I helped set up the stage for Obama in Denver, I ran a day care once. I like working with kids — helping them make their life better — if I could do anything I wanted, that’s what I’d do,” he said.

Jerry agreed to be interviewed but asked that I take his photos using my phone rather than my camera. I said I was fine doing that, but that the camera would take better images. He gave me his phone number and said that he would let me take his picture with a camera when he was better groomed, maybe a headshot for a job application later. I left him with information about Jubilee Jobs, an organization that provides job preparation and placement for the unemployed in Washington D.C., and he was excited about hearing about them. I haven’t seen Jerry on my subsequent visits to Union Station — I hope that he has found fulfilling work, and a warm home.

Lance, No. 15 — 19th & Pennsylvania, NW — Written by Hi Uan Kang Haaga

Lance hasn’t seen his three kids in 18 months. He has been on 19th & Pennsylvania, NW for 15 months. Everybody who has been to the Foggy Bottom area knows Lance. He is a permanent fixture of the area, and when I tell him that he must have been here longer than 15 months, he said, “Everyone says that!”

“Everyone says I’ve been here forever, but no, just 15 months,” he said. He felt his whole life that he should be a minister, but he joined the Navy, and worked as a chef. After losing custody of his children, he felt God says that he should stay on this street corner, between the World Bank and the IMF, a block from George Washington University, and two blocks from the White House. He has only left the corner when forcibly removed by the Metropolitan Police during blizzards and storms.

To every person walking by, he says, “God bless you, thank goodness it’s Friday, you have a blessed weekend!” He reminds couples that they should remember Valentine’s Day coming up, to enjoy the weekend, and that God loves them. He is always playing WGTS 91.9, the Christian radio station, and is surrounded by supplies for the homeless: water, food, hygiene products and clothes for women, toilet paper, gloves and hats. I told him that I’ve met several homeless women who desperately needed sanitary pads and clothes around the city, and he agrees that the need is great. Many cannot get access to bathrooms when they need it, and he hands out rolls and rolls of toilet paper to help out. Many people around the city donate supplies so that he can help others experiencing homelessness.

Lance has contributed to District Displaced, a project giving instant cameras to people experiencing homelessness, and encouraging them to share their story through photography. He tells those walking by to remember the homeless; that they are on the street whether it’s cold or hot. To see his photos, check out:

David, No. 11 — Eastern Market, SE — Written by Jaime Colman

David came to the United States from Jamaica in 1997. His wife at the time followed a year later. They met at a school in their hometown where she worked as a teacher, and David in the Department of Education. He is seen as a wise father-figure to many of his friends.

David is an avid, loyal Redskins’ fan who can be found Sundays watching the game and cheering for his beloved team, no matter how terrible they are. Many nights David likes to catch a bus to a Walmart in Northwest where he walks the aisles, buys any essentials, and enjoys observing the various shoppers. He likes the adventure of his Walmart jaunts.

During the recent blizzard, David was considering not seeking shelter and weathering the snowstorm outside. He mentioned he was grateful he decided to go inside since all public transportation was shut down. He stayed at a nearby shelter, where he watched lots of television and ate mounds of food.

Michael, No. 6 — U.S. Postal Museum, NE — Written by Charmaine Runes

“We had to find every little bit of human.”

“What was that like?”

“Dead bodies are just dead bodies.”

Michael was a first responder when the Pentagon was hit. He shakes his head as he recalls having to make his peace with God in a matter of seconds. “I didn’t know what I had gotten into — and now I’ve got tumors the size of a nickel.” The walls of the Pentagon, he continues, had asbestos, and he can’t get treatment. His voice rises. “The banks pushed me out the door because I don’t got no address. There’s no check, no Social Security,” he said.

He hired a public defender, but hasn’t seen anything come of it. He expects the lawyer just took off. When asked whether he would consider getting pro bono help, he smiles. “If someone’s gonna help me, I’m gonna pay them,” he said.

He also tells me that he knows how to pluck a chicken without an axe and to disarm a warhead. “Me with my sixth grade education — I’m smart. I could take a car apart and put it back together and you wouldn’t even know,” he said.

Gizmo, No. 13 — Union Station NE — Written by Heather Hill

On a morning so cold that no one wanted to step outside, we found Gizmo standing at an intersection near the Capitol. He held high a sign asking for work, the cardboard placard grasped tightly as possible between frozen fingers. He told us his full name and then asked if we would go by his nickname.

“I’ve been waiting. I’ve been waiting for someone to come over, say hello. Just smile,” he said, greeting us with a smile of his own.

We found a reprieve from the bitter wind in a coffee shop nearby. “I cross the street like that my whole life — no crosswalks,” he grinned as we walked across the street, nearly deserted despite the rush hour.

We talked about other lines, too. “You know what a B&E is? Breaking and entering. I fell once, really far. My foster brother thought I was dead, and they cut my clothes off at the ER. I was pieces. I still got the scars,” he said. Gizmo lowered his head so we could see the lines patterning his skull like continents. “I disappeared when I was nine. Nine for two more months, after my mother died. We were in a crash, and they got her out of the car to the hospital. She was there a few days. They wouldn’t let me see her. I just wanted to say goodbye and I couldn’t,” Gizmo said.

His looks away as he speaks of her, his mother: “She always told me, ‘You don’t let anyone put their hands on you; don’t let anyone hurt you.’ I stabbed a policewoman when I was just six; she’d come up and grabbed me, and I was scared. I’d found this knife on the street, and it was cool, you know? This black object with a blade that could pop in and out. She grabbed me, and it hurt, and so I just slipped the knife in. They locked me up. My mother, she came to the station and said, ‘You let my son out. What was he supposed to do? You’re surprised? You hurt him, so he did what I said.’ I don’t let anyone go hurting me, never.”

“My mother, she used my full name. She’d use it to make a point. But I got the name Gizmo because of the movie. You know the one? Because a gremlin gets into everything, and that was me,” he said. Gizmo laughed and shook his head, remembering to himself for a moment.

“I’m here, running from my past. I’m a former mobster. 30 years in prison, I was. I write now. I’m working on a book. I write poetry. I make my way,” he said.

“I sleep over by the Supreme Court until I can get back to New York. I’d sleep on the steps of the White House if I could get in, I would. I’d like to see them tell me to leave because I’m not just half Portuguese, I’m half Native American and I’d tell them, ‘You leave. We were here first.’”

He laughs at the idea for a moment and then goes silent, glances at the broken door beside us where the sixth person in a row is rattling the glass before seeing the sign and giving up.

“I should speak three languages,” he sighs, shaking his head. “I wish I did.”

As we gather ourselves to leave, he leans toward us. “Promise me one thing.”

He doesn’t wait for us to answer, but rushes on. “Promise me you’ll learn something new every day. Every day. Then you’ll never be without something. That’s my challenge for you.”